by Karen Laurie
MUMBAI, DEC 15, 2017: When Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian Priest, kept hostage for 557 days by terrorists in Yemen, was finally released from captivity on September 12, 2017, the world listened carefully for his testimony. Would it be one of resentment, bitterness, pain or torture? His abductors had after all gunned down 16 people, including four Missionaries of Charity nuns, in front of his eyes, before scurrying him away to an undisclosed location. Could anyone emerge from captivity unscathed?
Father Uzhunnalil could and has!
In Mumbai, in December, to receive the Mother Teresa Memorial Award, for his dedication and commitment to a place of great danger; 59-year-old Father Uzhunnalil is a far cry from the feeble, bitter hostage that many had imagined he would be after being held captive for over a year. While he is physically weaker, he is spiritually stronger.
"My blessed, loving Father would not give us anything bad, it may look as sufferings, but ultimately for me I see that I was not fortunate enough or worthy enough to be a martyr. I have no complaints. I never complained to the Lord. 'Why this sometimes,' yes, but I know, without his knowledge nothing bad would happen to me. While others fell to the bullets, why he has kept me unhurt? That was what strengthened me. It was not my personal strength and nothing to do with me," Father Uzhunnalil reflected.
"What kept me is this fact that the words of the Gospel, where, Jesus tells the people and his disciples, 'don't worry about clothing' and he sums up saying, 'even every hair on your head is counted and not one will fall to the ground without the knowledge of the Heavenly Father', so whenever that happens it's with the okay from the Heavenly Father."
Father Uzhunnalil, ordained in 1990, was first dispatched to Yemen in 2010, where he was responsible for catering to the spiritual needs of sisters from the Missionaries of Charity. He returned to India in 2015, before the war escalated. While thousands of Indian citizens were asked to leave the middle-eastern country, Father Uzhunnalil felt an inner calling to volunteer to return, despite the dangers.
His second stint began on July 1, 2017, after a UN Red Cross aircraft took him to Yemen. But the dangers of war were clearly apparent, even prompting the sisters to discuss the possibility of becoming targets of terrorists.
"Sister Superior had mentioned one night, may be two weeks before (the attack), 'Father how nice it would be if we all die together,' the youngest sister said, 'I don't want to die here,' and I said that, if it's the Lord's will, we cannot say no."
Sister Superior's words came true on March 4, 2016, as terrorists stormed the old-age home that catered to 70 inmates, firing and killing 16 people, including four sisters. Father Uzhunnalil, for some unknown reason to him, was left untouched.
"It was First Friday. We had holy Eucharistic adoration. Then the sisters went to be with the elderly people. I was still in the chapel praying. And while coming out of the sisters compound to the other general compound, I heard a gunshot and a little shuffling sound. I kept walking and there was a man with an automatic gun and bullets around his shoulders. He held my hand and told me to sit on a chair that was near the security room. The gunshot I heard was them shooting the security man," Father Uzhunnalil, said.
"I sat there. There was a gardener who was running to switch off the water pump. They probably thought he was running away and he was shot from behind. He fell, bled profusely and in some time, he died. Another youngster, who was helping the sisters, was sleeping in a room, they brought him out and I could see the bullet hit him, he fell down and died. They brought the four sisters out, took two of them a little far away but within my vicinity. I heard two gunshots, they fell and then the other two sisters, were where I could see them, they shot them behind the head."
"I saw them fall. As I was watching all this, I just prayed to the Lord, have mercy on them, on the sisters as well as all those who were killing. I know it is not my strength. The Lord never gave me any fear or anxiety. I was not shivering. I was just watching and praying."
The terrorists then forced Father Uzhunnalil into the boot of a car, before they returned to wreak more havoc on the home. They eventually drove him some distance, before shifting him to another vehicle. He was blindfolded and taken to a house, where he was made to sit in a room. Then they questioned him, took away his mobile phone and gave him a different set of clothes to wear.
"First one or two days they tied my hands and feet and blindfolded me and I was not allowed to see them nor was I allowed to see the place and the location." Father Uzhunnalil was moved to multiple locations during his time in captivity. He lost count of the date and time, but he knew the Lord would not abandon him in his hour of need.
"I used to keep recalling in my mind, that English hymn, 'One day at a time sweet Jesus'. I would wake up thank the Lord for the day, say the Angelus, say prayers for the dead, the Divine Mercy Rosary, Stations of the Cross and a Spiritual Mass. Since there was no bread and wine, no missal, I knew the prayers of the Mass, the prayers of the readings, I would meditate on it, bring to mind the Old Testament, New Testament, the Gospels and miracles."
"I would do the prayer of intercession for all and I would then complete the Holy Sacrifice spiritually and receive the spiritual Communion."
While Father Uzhunnalil prayed for the world outside, the world outside – and the faithful in India in particular - prayed for his release. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and over a year later, he was released!
"I see in all these events the hand of God. He has a mission for each one of us. Perhaps, the mission entrusted for me was to go back (to Yemen) and to give strength to the sisters and since I was not killed, the Lord wanted me to pray for these people, for the groups (captors) that they may change their attitudes."
"I know my own people, the whole Salesian family, the Holy Father have prayed for me. Even Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters, everyone prayed for me and it is their prayers that have kept me calm and kept me from sickness and pains. I could have been disturbed mentally and have gone off my head but none of those things has happened, no nightmares, nothing. It's the Lord's grace, due to the prayers of everyone," Father Uzhunnalil, said.
"God turns things for the good of all and I see that the 18 months that I have gone through, my going back to Yemen and coming out, God has used this opportunity to strengthen the faith of people and as a proof that He exists, He is a living God and He answers prayers."
Father Uzhunnalil' is a testimony that serves to inspire generations about the love and mercy of God. His visit to Mumbai did just that, as he addressed hundreds of faithful at the Shrine of Don Bosco's Madonna on the December 8. He addressed Salesians in formation on December 9 and youth at SYMBIOS, a Salesian gathering for the young on Dec 10.
"Those who were praying for him for so many months, when they see him in person, it strengthens their faith that our prayers have been answered," Father Savio Silveira, the Salesian Vice Provincial, said.
"Father Tom is very positive. Even when he talks about his captors he always says good things about them that they took care of me, they provided for my needs, they were kind to me. He says I was spending my time praying. It is a very inspirational moment for us as priests as well because he calls you back to your spiritual roots."